A caring, sensitive man

Now the thing about caring and sensitive men
– I find them quite bad for my health –
He’ll be perfectly lovely on dates 1 to 10,
But that will have all changed by the 12th.
It’s a pattern I’ve witnessed again and again,
Like so many nice, sensitive, caring men,
He is at his most caring and sensitive when
He is caring about himself.

Arts cuts, communities and more cuts.

In these dismal times, where cuts are everywhere, we are in serious danger of losing a lot of our access to independent and public arts and culture. In Sheffield, with £50 million in cuts announced yesterday, (on top of £140m over the last 2 years), galleries, award-winning theatres and libraries are all to have their funding cut alongside children’s services, services for vulnerable adults and 600 jobs. Independent organisations, like S1 Artspace, are already seriously under threat due to national arts funding cuts.

For individuals involved, this can be devastating: careers stopped short and ideas wasted, people who want to learn and be inspired given no chance. It also makes it harder for us (all of us) to share a rich, interesting, thoughtful society and culture. We are offered commercialisation and safe choices instead of experimenting and challenging – except for perhaps a narrowing elite, just talking to themselves.

Perhaps it’s hard to care about gallery closures when people are being sacked, made homeless, starved, care provision withdrawn, the NHS sold off? Things that make life bearable are recast as wasteful indulgences. Libraries for luvvies. But this is clearly just another opportunity for them to play divide and rule. Because it’s not about a choice between cutting disabled people’s benefits until they commit suicide or making culture the preserve of a privileged few. This government wants BOTH.

In this climate, how can arts organisations make arguments for their survival? I really care about the arts. They help me to think, reflect, learn provide spaces for making connections with people, things I think are important. But I know they are pretty, well, bourgeois. But…maybe they shouldn’t be. Not exclusively. Like so many things, instead of fighting to protect a status quo, there are opportunities here to think about what we want to fight for. They can also be a source of joy, something else that’s important. And it’d probably worth noting that visitor numbers to museums and galleries is at an all-time high. They should be reclaimed. Working class people want, deserve, and, I think, need bread and roses.

There are some really great ‘community arts’ projects, who produce some really good and interesting work (oh, if we could get away from using community as a euphemism for minorities and actually talk about people coming together, genuine collaboration and collectivity). People who are doing innovative things with technology and digital, who have learned through a culture of openness. But it’s always a separate category, something that’s over there. Like ‘women’s issues’ or ‘African American literature’. Why isn’t ‘community art’ just…’Art’? And why is some of the best art in Sheffield the uncommissioned, unofficial stuff of urban artists like Kid AcnePhlegm and loads of others that reclaims the derelict spaces of the city?




“The arts need to be more political”, I recently heard a prominent member of Liverpool’s arts establishment hold forth, over a pint, (before proceeding to slag off everyone he knew in the arts who was actually doing something political). “There need to be more people like me in the arts”. The outrageous narcissism aside, I couldn’t help thinking: aren’t you in a position to do something about that? But that’s not how bosses work. Workers in the arts are in very precarious positions, and that means being exploited. (I’ve written before about the arts and working for free).

I fear that most responses to threats in the arts mean playing the game more than ever – trying to be commercial, relying on sponsorship, philanthropy, and, of course, unpaid labour. My uneasiness about this is mostly about the individualistic nature of this approach. In a way, it’s playing into their hands. Crowdfunding and strongly worded letters to The Guardian are all very well, but what about a more radical response? What about working collectively? If you’re being moved out because you can’t afford the space, what about refusing to go? Occupations. Mass events. Alliances. This has happened in schools, universities, even adventure playgrounds. In response to nursery cuts in Sheffield, workers and parents are campaigning in a really inspiring way – staffing a daily stall outside the Town Hall, planning marches and rallies, spreading the word. Now these do provide vital services. There’s a lot of momentum behind some library campaigns too, like in Newcastle. Can this happen everywhere? Can the arts convince people they do too? Can they harness their creativity and energy to make themselves heard?

So, I had these questions in the back of my mind. And then I went to Germany.

I stayed in Hamburg with friends who live in Hafenstrasse, a large housing association and community. And from there I visited the Gangeviertel, another housing association developed from a squatting community who reclaimed unused property to create affordable spaces to live and work and make art. Here were open, communal spaces – exciting places to be in, even on a quiet winter day. They hold events and fiestas to bring people in; provide spaces for alternative conversations and ideas; participate in broader political movements (eg eyecatching interventions in public marches).



This is within the context of a movement for ‘the right to the city’, focused on affordable living space, committed to diverse, mixed communities. They are explicitly anti-gentrification, opposed to the soulless waves of corporate development that overtake inner-city residences (whereas in Britain the presence of artists in an area is often a step towards gentrification – the moving in of hipsters, ultimately to polarised, gated cities). Appropriating the tactics of high-earning tax dodgers, the artists of Gangeviertel threatened to leave the city if their homes and studios were sold off. Because people like coming to visit or live in cities with a thriving cultural scene, this is a threat with impact. These Hamburg artists work with working class communities; they are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. By working collectivity, they are able to harness – and demonstrate – their value to the city.



And this helped me understand some of my unease. A single-issue campaign against arts and culture cuts is, in the current climate, a bit tasteless. So, broaden it out. In the exciting days of the 2010 student movements, arts against cuts did some good stuff and got some attention. In Liverpool, I saw there were some people who situated cultural institutions within a broader context and were willing to start off conversations, at least. They were willing to take collective action on specific issues that would affect them (eg campaigning successfully against licencing for buskers).  There are lots of arguments made for free, accessible culture and education. There are movements against cuts, and for housing. We even have housing projects that promote a social mix. This government’s cuts are a concerted ideological attack, and the more we connect our struggles, the more likely we will be to succeed.


PS. All this said, please donate to S1’s crowdfunding campaign if you can. But please also sign the children’s services petition and come on the march. And be prepared for more to come.

The Leaving of Liverpool

As I left the house for the final time, the cheeky, inquisitive little boy next door watched me. ‘Are you sure you want to leave?’ he asked, and I tried not to let it get to me because I was – I am –sure it’s the right thing to do.

I do feel a sadness, though, as I have loved living in Liverpool and I know I’ve got a great deal from it, and moving there was only ever going to be temporary.  I haven’t regretted it, ever. So here’s my post to Liverpool, a self-indulgent goodbye and thank you letter that tries to share how I, as an outsider, experienced the city and why I think if you haven’t been, you should go there.

In Liverpool I learned a lot. Liverpool gave me a new perspective on poverty, inequality and what it means to be in recession. And although everyone hates Tories, their policies touch close and their rhetoric still divides. Liverpool’s not a socialist utopia, most especially there’s a nasty minority of the racist far-right, channelling their (unsurprising) anger into hate. There’s also a pretty vocal active left, but not one I managed to find a political home with during my time there. Liverpool allowed me to write – to put pen to paper and not be ashamed. To stop waiting for permission to “be creative”. I learned that I could teach myself to do things. I learned that I could go to things on my own and, if I wanted to, find people to talk to who had interesting things to say and would even be interested in what I had to say. Liverpool felt like community, the degrees of separation few. I could probably go on forever, so I’ve limited myself to a Liverpool top 10.

10 things that make Liverpool for me:

  1. The water

 Liverpool is, of course, framed – and made – by the water. From the glorious broad sweep of the inland Mersey as the train crosses Runcorn, through the industrial grandeur of the docks, to the beach escapes over the water or to the North of the city. The water that falls from the sky every single day. A broad expanse that makes the Thames seem scrawny. An enormous public art piece, hundreds of Gormley’s iron men dotted along the coast, looking out to the world this sea was so powerfully connected to. The Ferry.

  1. The space

In London, I felt a horrible claustrophobia most of the time. In Liverpool, I felt freed from this. I don’t mean to sound distasteful, but I could live in a house where I had space to move, for about half the rent I’d been paying before. This cheapness, and even more so the rows of boarded up houses – or empty spaces where houses were demolished, only for redevelopment plans to falter – testifies the city’s poverty. I didn’t get to know the city well enough to know if it has much of a squat scene but it felt like it should. For someone used to space being a precious commodity, those empty houses, and the security effort that goes into keeping them empty, feel very sad.

 On the other hand, there is beauty even in that sadness; the dereliction that accompanies ‘managed decline’ means space to breathe, to grow. New things can spring up – and I think what’s happening in the Baltic triangle area, and some of the ‘pop-ups’ are good examples of this. So are the weeds and wild flowers that the fences can’t keep out.

  1. Threshold Festival

It seems that in Liverpool there is always some party, festival or event going on, from the major events like the Biennial (it’s now!), Sound City and the wonderful Giant Spectacular to the more niche or small scale – a market, a fair, a stage with some bands. Many are free, or at least low cost. When I first visited it on the occasional weekend, I would stumble upon them accidentally – huge samba parades and the world’s largest pirate muster springing up bringing a sense of magic and surprise. Once there, I tried to keep track of what was happening when, and to get myself involved, mainly as a volunteer. I was pleased to be involved in DaDaFest, which showcased some excellent and very diverse work by disabled and D/deaf artists and saw the ‘arts establishment’ and ‘community arts’ find a rare meeting ground. However, Threshold Festival probably best sums up for me Liverpool’s DIY attitude (and ability to put on a boss party), as a grassroots festival making the best use of charm, connections, and scarce resources. They offer a little bit of something for everyone, a series of events throughout the year leading up to the festival itself: put 8-10thMarch in your diary.

  1. Bold Street

Running from the edge of the shopping centre of town to the bombed out church (St. Luke’s), and the ‘daytime’ end of the ‘Ropewalks’ area, this street is full of gems and has an unmistakeable character – and, of course, a festival – of its own. So it starts off more bargain chain stores than anything else, but by the time you’re halfway up there are some of Liverpool centre’s best charity shops, Matta’s small but superb ‘ethnic’ grocers and Leaf, chilled out tea shop by day, trendy venue at night. By the top, you’ll have passed vintage, design, independent shops selling art supplies (Rennies) or music (The Music Consortium), radical bookshop News from Nowhere and its adjoining community centre, Ropewalks square opening onto FACT and the mighty Bold Street Coffee.

  1. Camp & Furnace

Camp and Furnace is many things. It’s a sort of game of how much boss stuff can we fit into one enormous ex-warehouse. Lots, it turns out, and Ian Richards seems to have a clear vision for ‘a new kind of venue’. This country badly needs indoor ‘outdoor’ spaces and this one’s perfect, with trees, wood fires and quirky vintage caravans. It hosts all sorts of events: bands, art fairs and er, Scandi-themed hot tub parties, serves an excellent range of drinks (including their own specially-brewed beer) and bloody good food (and an exciting and varied specials board). Ok, so the word ‘eatery’ grates and the lack of classic starter/main divides can confuse, but ‘Food & Beverage Director’ Ste Burgess knows his shit and the detail, flavours, sourcing and presentation are absolutely spot on.

  1. Green Cauldron Coffee

A controversial choice, in a city where great coffee has its unchallenged leader. I’m not saying Bold Street and sister establishment Duke Street aren’t brilliant places that sell delicious coffee. I’m saying that there’s another brilliant place that sells delicious coffee (and food) that’s not so high profile but is well worth a visit, especially if you’re up that end of town. Bang on coffee trend, Green Cauldron is Australian, with their own coffee plantation so they really know – and care – about their beans. They also do hearty sandwiches in Turkish flatbreads and proper cakes, made by someone’s mum, and are unfailingly lovely.

  1. The Kazimier

The Kazimier is a venue/nightclub unlike any other I’ve ever experienced. It’s party as art, a spectacle, even a culture in itself. The décor echoes art deco cabaret meets music hall, but invaded by rockstars. Now it even has a garden. One of my first Liverpool experiences was a Kazimier one – Atalonia – a retro-futuristic journey starting in a disused warehouse but ending up in a magical underground alternative world. One of my last was the FestEvol gardens, a mini-festival featuring so many bands and DJs it was hard to know where to look. Whatever it’s doing, the Kazimier is cool as fuck, but never forgets to be fun.

  1. The Bluecoat

Calling itself a ‘creative hub’, The Bluecoat‘s diverse approach to arts and creativity is typical, really. Exhibition space (showing some quite challenging contemporary art), performance space, activities, fairs, independent crafts, studios, discussions…well, look at the programme to see just how much stuff they do.

The Bluecoat believes everyone can craft and be creative and it is our aim to provide a space where creativity can flourish and be shared.

This is a lovely ethos and you can probably see why it appeals to me, and I did a brilliant dot-art evening course in various crafts here (although for affordability and camaraderie, my leisure learning heart lies up the road at Blackburne House with the ROOD Vintage girls). It also, like so much in the arts, relies on volunteer labour and though passing a half-day in the gallery with a book is a pretty pleasant way to spend one’s free time… well, you know. A great starting point to get away from the more obvious at the Tate, the Walker and the Playhouse (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but why limit yourself?). Then go to the smaller, independent and artist-led spaces, (personal fave) Wolstenholme Creative Space, Static, The Royal Standard, Metal and, no doubt, many others I don’t even know about. And then tell me about them.

  1. The Double Negative

As a newcomer to Liverpool, not knowing many people, I was totally dependent on the internet to make connections and find my way around. There are loads of great Liverpool tweeters and, I feel a sense of community there, even with people I haven’t met IRL. Through Twitter I became aware of events, opportunities, offers, new openings. Most of the things I’ve mentioned in this list I either first became aware of, or kept up to date with, through Twitter. Even before I moved to Liverpool I was reading some of its blogs, most notably Seven Streets, Open Culture and Food Fascination, a varied, knowledgeable food blog. Shortly after I did, a new culture site launched: The Double Negative. Writing reflectively, often intelligently and critically about the city’s (and beyond) ‘culture scene’, The Double Negative features local artists’ work, interviews, a film podcast (in which I’ve appeared!), a weekly thematic playlist and, for me best of all, Culture Diary. Let these guys plan your week. Seriously.

10. The people

You didn’t think I was going to forget you, did I? Bolshy, “aggressively friendly”, curious, hilarious, unapologetic, inimitable – I don’t want to replicate stereotypes but I don’t think there’s any question of a distinct ‘Liverpool culture’. There’s the scousers themselves, and so many who’ve drifted there, many settling accidentally whilst just passing through. People with lots of creative energy; it’s telling that there’s hardly any comedy nights but every bar has an open mic night. A people with the gift of the gab and plenty of opinions, in a city with a lively spirit of public debate. A city where femininity is consciously and quite marvellously performed, an aesthetic with no pretence of ‘natural’ but that allows for being ‘off-duty’ too, out in the streets in PJ and rollers. And, over the past few weeks, you’ve shown the incredible ability of a community to pull together to share grief and to fight for justice. I’ll miss you.


I’ve been inspired and thinking a lot about ownership, particularly inspired by the discussions about copyright/copy left and intellectual property at Open CuRate It ‘Who Owns It?’ session. I was going to write a blog post but it was all too complicated so somehow turned into a poem.  Something else then happened that threw my thinking about property and ownership into pretty sharp relief. I ended up with three poems.


A thing I found
beneath the ground;
Someone I paid
gave me to trade;
a leaf, a tree,
that once was free,
a farmer grew
to blend or brew.
It’s grand,
this piece of land,
but please be careful
where you stand.

A wave, a line,
a cool design,
a beat, a rhyme,
arbitrary signs,
used time after time,
enriched, combined,
that’s how,
we find,
meaning’s refined.
My dear,
it’s such a neat idea,
but guard it near
for your career.

Covet, collect
a rare insect;
I promise to protect.
Who could object?
A ring around
a finger: tied & bound.
Love and care
are not to share.

My mum, my Dad,
first objects I had.
Lucky me:
They made me
I’m their IP.


They’re on the make, it’s there to take
When having some means getting more
on top of what they had before

So kindly lent (he’s such a gent)
you can’t protest the interest.

Without, bereft
All property is – well,
you know the deftly worded
Left position on this question
(I’m glad I got that off my chest).


An old machine,
a missing key,
a damaged screen.
Given to me:
I was lucky
Its memory,
my history:
old photographs,
abandoned drafts
I even feel affinity
with its exhausted battery.
But I forgot to close the doors
and now it’s yours.


Some troubled thoughts on the Jubilee.

I need some help understanding. Why is it something to celebrate – Queen, country, flag, all that.
ESPECIALLY in Liverpool? Why is this bolshy, independent working class city so into the whole queen/flag shit?

I genuinely don’t get it. Aren’t the royal family mostly just a sort of embarrassing joke? That kind of hereditary power and wealth doesn’t make sense on any rational measure. As a system it is, put simply, “preposterous”. Supporters of the monarchy are the sort of people you know exist, but never really encounter in real life, like people who fox hunt, prefer ready salted crisps or vote for the Tories. Or so I thought, until this weekend…

We often see the argument that within the system we have, this Queen’s probably been quite good at it. I mean, she could have been worse. She’s got that wave down. We’ve been sold a personal story, through extended exposure and familiarity. But even accepting that, it doesn’t cut through the issues with that system

The other defence sometimes put up is that an elected president would be just as bad. Yknow: Bush, Sarkozy, President Blair… People who shudder at the thought are frankly right to do so. A few tinkers with the constitution and yet another election might be a tiny bit better (and I think the past few governments have been a bit daft to miss out easy quick wins to take out the more egregiously sexist and racist elements of it), but if we keep everything else to do with the system we have now, it’s pretty pointless. Having an elected neoliberal head of a capitalist state would make no difference to people’s lives. It’s like LibDem thinking, and we know where that gets us. The system we have is not good enough. The monarchy is a part of it (however a tiny part and an anachronistic irrelevance it seems at times). Any doubts about this being a systemic issue and the monarchy being on the other side must, surely, be squashed by this news story about unpaid stewards. I’ve even seen hopeful appeals to the imaginary, benign monarch: ‘does the Queen know about this?’ as though if she did she’d do anything to change it. Just as there was quite a sweet call to deny Royal Assent to the NHS reforms. Which, of course, she didn’t.

The nationalism thing is, of course, more complicated. I know, intellectually, that some people attach importance to ‘belonging’, and that the national prism is a pretty mainstream vehicle for that. I have to admit that as the child of immigrant, leftish but middle class parents, British/Englishness has never been that important to me. For the record, I’m not proud to be Irish either. I’m a citizen of the world! Those drawn-on borders & accidents of birth that make up our ‘imagined communities’ don’t mean anything to me. Of course, they mean a great deal, in practical and experiential terms, but that doesn’t stop them being a construct.

Having said that, I don’t think ‘don’t be proud to be of this nation because of all these awful things ruling classes did in past’ helps anyone. It reaffirms that essentialised identification along ‘national’ grounds and puts up people’s defences; guilt tends to be unproductive. We know what happens when someone tries to start a public conversation about slavery. BUT I think it’s crucial that we need to recognise that those awful things done by the ruling classes in the past (and present, and future) is what we’re being told to celebrate for the Jubilee. In an exclusionary society, with a brutally exclusionary history, there’s a lot not to celebrate, as articulated brilliantly by Black Feminists.

But the flags and the bunting, the street parties, the mugs with their faces on, the Jubilee-themed everything.

It’s a version of belonging that is so commodified we can buy our way into it. (In our version of consumer capitalism, nothing is safe, as Stavvers has bravely discovered). A bonus day off from our shit jobs (those of us who have them), overindulgence, a false nostalgia for an imaginary past (On Twitter, @mortari created #youin52 as a sinister reminder of what kind of society some people are nostalgic for), maybe a dash of knowing irony. It’s just such blatant bread and circuses tactics I can’t believe anyone is going for it, even if we do all need a bit of fun in our bloody miserable lives.

So why, Liverpool, why? It’s the most deprived city in England, with the highest unemployment, and is being profoundly affected by the austerity agenda. It’s not even as though there isn’t an understanding in the city of its situation as political – between the Tory policy of ‘managed decline’ and an appreciation of tabloid class hate. It’s a city that, last year, celebrated its radical history – but is that just the bourgeois arts establishment? It’s also a city full of Irish-descended Catholics, with (some of) the exploitative experiences of Empire inscribed upon their ‘national’/’ethnic’ histories – or so I thought – and who are expressly forbidden from joining this ruling family. And yet, there were street parties across Liverpool – almost 200 in Merseyside (including, gallingly, in my street. Celebrations held in schools, nurseries, hospitals – all the sorts of places most threatened. Is this what they mean by cognitive dissonance? 

If anyone has any clues, I would be genuinely interested to hear them.

Butter-less pastry – can such a thing exist?

Last week was British Pie Week (no, really), so what better time to post about my recent attempts at pastry. It never figured that highly on my baking priorities, what with not being cake, and having been put off in childhood by my mum’s claims that it was my brother, not me, who was the natural pastry chef. However, after a particularly pathetic-looking bunch of mince pies this Christmas (delicious, with homemade mincemeat made following this recipe, but very unattractive), I set it as a 2012 challenge to myself to get good at pastry. I knew I would be ok, for I would have Dan Lepard as my guide.

Dan's fantastic baking book, which I got for a Xmas present

As I live with (and often cook for) my lactose-intolerant friend, pastry is one of those things that is safer homemade. I’ve noted, though, that many commercial pastries, particularly the cheaper ones, are dairy free and vegan – thanks to cheap industrial palm oil, I guess. It’s still nowhere near as cheap as flour and fat, though, and a lot less fun. One of my first attempts was to make a hearty winter dinner pie, and for the filling I followed Delia’s ‘Not Pork’ Pie recipe – green lentils, vegetables, herbs and spices – with some variations – I swapped the tomatoes for mushrooms to get something a bit heartier and I’m glad, as any more sweetness would have been too much – and used Dan’s hot mustard shortcrust (halved). Apparently the key to short shortcrust is using crisp, hard (ie animal) fats and keeping them cool. My new approach, then, is freezing, freezing and more freezing.





It seems to work. I improvised them into a loaf tin with a foil divider to make simple, square pies, though I did also have a go with recycled foil pie containers (from Linda McCartney pies. Which are actually pretty good. Don’t judge). The squares were simpler (and bigger, which made for a more satisfying, if  sometimes somewhat immobilising meal). It does look nicer with an eggwash (sorry vegans)…



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Actually just read this on how to treat workers!

Jo Bloggs

If a 50% rate of tax is enough to disincentivise work, what will low or non-existent wages do?

There seems to be an accepted consensus amongst business leaders and many senior politicians – at least, the right of centre ones – that the 50p rate of tax is harmful to economic growth. The 50p rate is serving as a disincentive for wealth creation, we are told. Top earners are creating fewer jobs, moving assets abroad, generating less wealth, and in general taking extra pains to avoid their taxes. In short, taxing incomes over £150,000 at 50% instead of 40% is enough to make people fail in their patriotic work ethic.

While this may well be true, and cutting the 50p tax rate may be a good idea for a whole myriad of reasons, not least because it is possible that it actually brings in a lot less revenue, although this…

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